For many travellers to Peru, Cusco is seen as the quasi-“basecamp” for adventures to Machu Picchu, whether by bus and train or on the famous Inca Trail. Cusco, at an elevation around 3400 m above sea level, is a place to acclimatize to the altitude, especially if hiking in the Andes is imminent. But this historic capital of the Inca empire should be seen as a destination in its own right, and there’s plenty of things to see, do, and learn within the city and in its immediate surrounding area – so much so, that even after spending 5 days there, I still hadn’t seen everything.
I visited Cusco in June of 2013, amidst the celebrations for the Inti Raymi festival. Being able to attend this celebration of the Winter Solstice was one of the highlights of my whole trip, so if you have the luxury of choosing any time to visit Peru, during the festival is an exceptional time to go. Along with that, here are some of the other places I can recommend seeing in Cusco.
1. Inti Raymi Festival
The official festival date of Inti Raymi (Quechua for ‘sun festival’) is June 24th, which corresponds with the southern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice. The official place to watch the festival theatrics at the Sacsayhuaman Ruins, though these spectator seats are ticketed and my friends and I didn’t have the forethought to book. That being said, you can still see some of the action when the parade runs through the Plaza de Armas square. You don’t necessarily need to be in Cusco on the actual festival day – festive and colourful dancers fill the streets in the weeks leading up to Inti Raymi with traditional, indigenous dancing. Be warned that the crowds are many and you won’t be the only tourists flocking to Cusco for the event – accommodations will book up fast around this time.
2. Sacsayhuaman Ruins
The ruins at Sacsayhuaman (think “Sexy Woman”) loom just above Cusco. The structure was originally built by the Killke Culture, then completed by the Incas in the 13th century. The construction is incredible, as the Incas carefully cut the walls’ boulders so they’d fit perfectly together without mortar. It was built to be a place of ceremony high above the Cusco settlement, which also means you’ll also get a great view of the city below. The site is also surrounded by incredible natural rock formations, and if you’re into it, you can also visit the giant Cristo Blanco statue which overlooks Cusco across the way from Sacsayhuaman. Both the ruins and the Cristo Blanco make great viewpoints of the city below.
The active traveller can hike all the way up to the top from the city centre; it will take about an hour, but as it is predominantly uphill and Cusco is at a high altitude, it will definitely get your heart pumping.
3. Experience Colonial & Inca History
Cusco is a place where the Quechua and Inca History merges in a unique way with Spanish colonialism. It retains a lot of its indigenous heritage with much of the ruins and public art and statues, while simultaneously being surrounded by colonial architecture. One of the most noteworthy clashes is in the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, which has several exhibits dedicated to artifacts from even before the time of the Incas, and then the last exhibit is filled with very Catholic, Renaissance-style paintings (but still retaining a bit of Quechua flair) – signalling the impacts of Colonialism on the people of Peru.
The other fascinating Indigenous-Colonial blend is inside the Cusco Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas; while it is a Catholic monument, there’s a painting inside depicting Jesus’s last supper but rather than painting the food that appears in most interpretations, Jesus and his disciples are shown eating traditional food like cuy (guinea pig/chinchilla) and chica (a purple corn drink). The Quechua painter, Marcus Zapata, also painted Judas to look like Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who killed the Inca king – because the Quechua (understandably) did not like Pizarro. Little “easter eggs” like this in addition to the museums (and a bit of light reading) show these both sides of the Spanish conquest, helping to deepen our understanding of a turbulent time on the continent.
4. Shop the Artisanal Markets
Cusco at night can be quite cold, and if you’re heading off on the Inca Trail, it’s a good idea to stock up with some alpaca wool garments in Cusco. I didn’t explore more than three markets so I can’t say if it’s the best, but the Centro Artesanal has a great variety of alpaca wool sweaters, mittens, hats, etc. to warm you up or pick up for souvenirs back home as well, and for good prices too since it’s not as close to the Plaza de Armas as other markets are.
The food markets are also quite a treat for the senses. I became addicted to the freshly squeezed fruit juice blended with milk at the food market near the Plaza de Armas. But we also watched a delivery truck pull up to the market and inside the truck were stockpiles of dead pigs, pig heads and all their innards – so may be another kind of “treat” for you as well!
5. Eat the food!
Okay – you don’t HAVE to try guinea pig to call your trip to Peru a success, but it is something you can try in Cusco, along with many other traditional Peruvian dishes and delicacies that stem from Quechua culture. But Cusco is also a place where food worlds collide – we ate at a Peruvian-Indian fusion restaurant, featuring such dishes as tandoori guinea pig and alpaca curry – and Cusco also features several “chifa” restaurants, which is the fusion of Peruvian and Chinese food due to the high settlement of Chinese people at the turn of the 20th century. You can even drink at the highest altitude Irish pub in the world in Cusco – if that’s your thing (I didn’t go, so I can’t speak to its quality).
Additionally, as mentioned, the markets and street food in Cusco also make for great snacks to fill the void between meals (maybe it’s just me, but high altitude makes me hungrier than usual). The lady hawking churros for 5 cents a bag was basically my best friend.
There is of course a McDonalds and I’ve heard there’s now a Starbucks – but with so many great Peruvian cafes (with to-die for desserts) and street food that’s cheaper than McDonalds, why would you stay within that comfort zone? (Admittedly – I will eat McDonalds when abroad when I’m feeling overwhelmed and culture shocked – but only once).
Other Cusco Tips
Cusco was the first city I stepped foot into in South America – in fact, the first non-Europe/Canada/United States city I’d ever visited. I was worried about safety and my inability to speak Spanish – but this is not a place that either of those things should cause you a great deal of concern. I was also worried about reacting to the altitude, especially since I was trying to acclimatize prior to embarking on the Inca Trail.
So many tourists come through Cusco on a daily basis that there’s lots of English in the historical centre, where most of the tourists flock, and you shouldn’t have problems with cab drivers, hostel workers or tour desk operators. Other basic Spanish you’ll pick up on the way, like “how much does this cost” or “the bill, please” – which can be conjured up from any Spanish traveller’s phrasebook.
As far as safety goes, my friend and I walked past a protest/demonstration, but since we didn’t get involved we were able to avoid it quite easily. I never felt unsafe walking with my friends at night, and walking around during the day alone was also fine. The only thing that happened was, when I was in the massive crowd watching the Inti Raymi parade, I caught a guy with his hand in my purse (a cross-body bag). I was able to swat him away, then repositioned my bag so it was directly in front of me and in my hands, and made sure the zipper was closed. Maintaining your wits is a key to a successful trip anywhere in the world.
Regarding the altitude, the biggest key is to take it one step at a time. If you’re feeling the effects immediately, then take it slow as you’re walking around, particularly up hill or up stairs (of which both exist in the city centre). Wait one or two days before attempting the walk up to Sacsayhuaman – which can be seen as a good training exercise prior to the Inca trail! And of course, stay hydrated – the water in Cusco is not safe to drink, but bottled water is widely available.
Have you visited Cusco? What were your favourite parts of the city?